More than one in 15 people in the UK tested positive for Covid in the last week of 2021, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates.
That’s a total of 3.7 million people infected, with rises in all regions of England except London, where a slowdown looks possible.
In older age groups, numbers testing positive are going up, the ONS says.
Combined with mounting pressure on the NHS and growing staff absences, this is concerning health officials.
But a top statistician says it’s not likely we will see a big surge in serious illness and deaths during this Omicron wave.
According to the ONS, which tests thousands of people in households with and without symptoms, and reported similar preliminary figures earlier this week:
In London, where one in 10 is estimated to test positive, “there were early signs in the last few days of 2021 that infections may no longer be increasing, but it is currently too early to suggest if this is a continuing change in trend,” it reports.
However, in the north of England infections are rising at a faster rate than in other regions, at least doubling in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and The Humber to between one in 15 and one in 20 affected.
All age groups are seeing increases in the percentage of people testing positive for coronavirus, but this trend could be flattening in children aged 11-16.
The ONS says this can only be confirmed after seeing the effects of children returning to school after the Christmas holidays.
It estimates that around 2% of the over-70s and 4% of 50-69-year-olds tested positive in the last week of December, rising from a low level. The virus spilling into these age groups, which have always been the most vulnerable to Covid illness, is an expected but worrying sign.
The ZOE Covid symptom app also found cases were rising in the over-75s. It estimates that half of people with cold-like symptoms are likely to have Covid.
Sir David Spiegelhalter, from the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that in London, the numbers entering hospital seem to be stable and may even be declining, but admissions are rising in other parts of the country.
“There’s still no sign of a serious increase in intensive care ventilation and deaths, and we would have expected to see that by now,” he said.
He said the priority was now managing the disruption to the NHS caused by Covid-19.
Staff absences due to Covid at hospital trusts in England have trebled since the beginning of December.
Around 4% of staff, or nearly 35,600 workers, at hospital trusts in England were absent due to Covid every day last week – a 41% rise on the week before. In total, 9% of staff were off sick for any reason, or isolating.
Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England national medical director, said rising Covid-19 cases were “piling even more pressure” on hospital trust workers.
“Omicron means more patients to treat and fewer staff to treat them.”
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